Thursday, March 28, 2013

Should political accounts for governments declare they're not run by the public service?

I blogged last December on the topic of whether social media was blurring the non-partisan status of appointed public servants.

At the time I was reflecting on the confusion that can be caused when political operatives and members of a politician's own staff use social networks in ways that can mislead parts of the broader community into thinking those accounts are run by appointed professional public servants.

Examples I used included the Prime Minister's @JuliaGillard Twitter account, which was listed, and remains in the list of official government accounts in Australia.gov.au. It's the only account in the list not operated by the Australian Public Service (APS) and it is regularly used to tweet in a partisan way. I don't dispute whether the Prime Minister should use her account in this way, it is her right, only that it appears as the sole politically operated account on a list of APS accounts, potentially confusing members of the community.

I also used an example of the Queensland State Budget account (@QLDStateBudget) - which has now been deleted after receiving significant criticism.

In this case the confusion went further - the account appeared to be operated by the QLD Treasury, but in fact was operated by a QLD Liberal party advisor and used for partisan purposes. This created significant confusion amongst Twitter users and controversy in other media during its brief existence.

Now we have a another account that fits this model.

Operated by the Prime Minister's Media Office, @PMOPressOffice is tweeting a combination of useful facts, partisan comparisons and commentary.

I recognise this account is operated by the PM's Office, not the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and thereby by staff appointed by the ruling party, not by the Australian Public Service (APS). They're called Member of Parliament Staff (MOPS) and are not required to abide by the Public Service Act, instead falling under the Members of Parliament Staff Act.

As such they're not required to be seen to be apolitical when carrying out official duties (such as running Twitter accounts) and are largely appointed party operatives.

However this distinction isn't clear to everyone - and there's already been quite a bit of discussion, and even criticism, directed at the (apolitical) APS, due to a mistaken understanding that this account is operated by them.

This is precisely the concern I wrote about in December, blurring the lines between public service and political operatives can damage trust in the machinery of government, making it harder for the public service to achieve the goals that the ruling political party sets for them.

As I commented about these types of accounts last year, I don't think it is inappropriate for the PM's Office to operate this account - it is making a valuable contribution to public discussion about policy and politics and by providing facts which are sometimes thin on the ground.

However I would suggest that the account makes it clear in its Twitter profile that it is not operated by the public service - mitigating controversy, questions and any mistaken loss of respect for the APS.

This could be as simple as rewriting the profile as follows (fits 160 character limit):

From:
The official Twitter account of the Prime Minister of Australia's Press Office. All tweets are on the record.
To:
Official Twitter account of the Prime Minister of Australia's Press Office. All tweets are on the record. Operated by MOP staff not Australian Public Servants.

5 comments:

  1. Nice post,keep sharing such stuff with us,thanks

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  2. It's already self-defining. Why would anyone assume a PM office account was run by anyone but the PM's office which is obviously staffed by political staff?

    Why would the PM's office have to declare that it is the PM's office? More to the point, why would the PM need to declare that she is the PM and not a public servant?

    "I recognise this account is operated by the PM's Office, not the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and thereby by staff appointed by the ruling party, not by the Australian Public Service (APS). They're called Member of Parliament Staff (MOPS) and are not required to abide by the Public Service Act, instead falling under the Members of Parliament Staff Act."

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    Replies
    1. Hi NZ public servant. As a public servant you'd understand a fair amount how governments operate internally, who is a public servant and who is a party employee.

      Such knowledge is unevenly distributed across the broader population.

      It is a popular refrain amongst the many public servants I know that the general populace doesn't know which department to speak to and has difficultly distinguishing the roles of different government levels, let alone understanding who is who in the zoo.

      So I appreciate that you understand that the people managing the PM's Press Office account are not public servants. However I dispute your view that this automatically means that the majority of Twitter users - who do not have the experience that you have - will see the world in the same way as you do.

      Delete
  3. I love the comment "already self-defining". Just because a person/citizen of a country happens to be its PM, at the moment, and have the support of a bunch of people employed by the public purse, doesn't mean she shouldn't have the opportunity to give her opinion on things. Logically, we also have to believe that every APS employee has no opinion.

    Working on this logic, anyone/public servant who agreed, or disagreed, with @JuliaGillard must be seen to lie in one of two partisan camps.

    It's that kind of naive thinking which causes the dumbing down of any discussion in most countries (although Aus seems to excel in the "all black" vs "all white" approach). E.g. Discussions about the NBN seem to boil down to the efficacy of taking Either a FTTN, OR a FTTP approach. Splitting 'a minister for social MEDIA' from 'one for ancient/broadcast MEDIA' will also appear logical. After all, they are "self defining".

    The other belief which goes with this kind of stupidity is that gov's can fix/manage/regulate everything. Pass a policy and everything will change. OK so we need a policy which says "every gov department must innovate". Let the professional wars begin.

    It's getting a bit boring listening to these kinds of discussion. So let me give you this. When I log onto to an online service, regardless of whether it's a private of public one, i don't want to have to use an (open) ID from a commercial operator. I just want to, in this country, use this one. http://australia.gov.au/service/register-for-online-services

    Hey, even Julia (or whever she wants to nominate) should be allowed to use it as well. We should to be democratic about these things.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Simon,

      We do have a policy stating that every (federal) department must innovate.

      Is this less useful than a policy stating that every department must make its websites accessible?

      Delete